It’s all about the beef. More specifically, it’s about grass-fed beef. The demand for grass-fed beef has been increasing in recent years, even as that of beef raised in feedlots, with grain-based diets, has been decreasing, said Don Woodring, Education Program Associate, District 7 Agriculture Program Coordinator, Penn State Extension.
“That forage-based beef consumption continues to grow in the U.S. even as feedlot, corn-finished beef consumption has seen some decline over the years, demonstrates a trend – not a fad – that consumers want another option concerning beef,” Woodring said. “The reasons are many and varied why consumers are demanding forage-fed beef. My goal is to help producers get through the particular challenges of a forage-based operation and achieve a quality product that the consumer enjoys.”
With that in mind, Woodring — along with Jessica Williamson, Ph.D, Extension Forage Specialist and Dave Hartman, Extension Livestock Educator — has developed a program to assist new and long-term grazers in producing the highest quality beef possible. The program will include all aspects of producing beef on pasture forages from calf to consumer.
“Forage-Based Beef – a Penn State Extension Series on Getting It Right,” brings producers a wide range of topics relevant to raising quality beef on pasture. Partnering with other agencies, including the Lycoming County Farm Service Agency and Conservation District, the USDA and the PA Grazing Land Coalition, the program’s mission is to help producers succeed in their beef operations. The multi-faceted pilot program was launched with a spring classroom session last April and a twilight pasture walk this past fall.
“Our goal is to bring science-based information to the producers who need it to help them better manage their operation efficiently and profitably with an outcome of a quality product,” Woodring said. “My concern was that new producers who might have experience in grain-fed beef or dairy operations, or some people with no experience at all, would not have enough information to actually bring a quality product to market. The focus of the program is forage-based, but any beef operator can learn from the series.”
It’s notable that Woodring uses the term “forage-based,” rather than grass-fed, to describe the program’s purpose. While much debate over grass-fed versus grain-fed beef has occurred in the past few years, the reality is that cows can be grazing more than just grasses.
“Forage-based is more inclusive and representative of grazing management that uses grasses, legume plants, brassicas, corn stalks and other non-grain forages,” Woodring said.
A recent day-long spring seminar, held in Lycoming County, attracted more than four dozen attendees. Ranging from those raising beef in grain-based systems, long-time producers of grass-fed beef, former dairy farmers seeking to raise beef and new beef producers seeking knowledge on forage-based beef operations, many in attendance were from the Central Pennsylvania region. But others traveled from New York, Maryland, Ohio and more distant regions of Pennsylvania.
Featured keynote speaker, George Lake of Thistle Creek Farms in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, may have been one reason many made that trek. Lake, who received the first place award in “The Forage Spokesperson Contest” at the 2016 American Forage and Grassland Council conference, has raised beef on pasture for several decades. With 500 heads of Aberdeen Angus cattle, Lake utilizes a wide variety of grasses, from many regions of the world, to provide optimal pasture nutrition. Addressing issues including the establishment of annual and perennial grasses, intensive grazing rotations, multi-species grazing – Lake raises sheep, too – and pasture maintenance, Lake discussed his program for raising beef in a year-round grazing system.
Lake was joined by Williamson and Hartman, who discussed extending the grazing season and the use of cover crops and annuals in the pasture. Dwight Linglefelter, Extension Weed Specialist, discussed pasture weed control.
With consumer interest in beef raised in alternative systems, rather than the feedlot, more producers will be adapting pasture-based operations. Doing it right results in high-quality meat and can keep the demand high.
“The reasons are many and varied why consumers are demanding forage-based beef,” Woodring said. “We do not enter into the grain-fed, grain-finished beef versus the grass-fed only beef debate. The individual consumer can decide that question with his or her own taste and expectations. I just want the producers to succeed in their operations and achieve a product that is highly marketable and if Extension resources and our partners can help them get there, everybody wins.”
Upcoming sessions in the Forage-Based Beef Program include summer farm tours and a fall seminar. Future seminar topics will include genetics, marketing, regulations and business models, Woodring said. Interested producers can contact Woodring at 570-726-0022 ext. 3821 for further information.